Projecting Canberra's International Goals: Ken Ross Reviews Post-1945 Australian Prime Ministers' Global Diplomacy

By Ross, Ken | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2014 | Go to article overview

Projecting Canberra's International Goals: Ken Ross Reviews Post-1945 Australian Prime Ministers' Global Diplomacy


Ross, Ken, New Zealand International Review


Australia's prime ministers are the most important individuals projecting Canberra's international goals. None of the Australians has as impressive a portfolio for progressive global diplomacy as Norman Kirk, our best. Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd are measured for how progressive they were when undertaking their global diplomacy. New Zealand prime ministers have their Australian counterparts right at the top of their list of global interlocutors. It is not an equal partnership--a New Zealand prime minister seldom inhabits his Canberra counterpart's inner circle of 'speed dial' foreign contacts. Since 1945 a close, strong understanding between trans-Tasman prime ministers has been a rare thing indeed.

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'During the twentieth century Australia's foreign policy has oscillated between two views about its role in the world. The question was whether the country's security demanded the unswerving support of great and powerful friends, or whether it should take a more independent stance.' (Robert Garran, 2004) (1)

'In one sense no country except New Zealand can be compared with Australia: these are the only two "western" nations that, strategically, are part of Asia. (What happens to Australia cooks New Zealand's hash too.)' (Donald Horne, 1964) (2)

'New Zealand opinion has a built-in tendency to seek out differences with Australia.... New Zealanders are inclined to see Australia as bigger, more vulgar and more compromised by power politics than they are.' (Hedley Bull, 1971) (3)

Garran pinpoints the core choice for Australian prime ministers when they undertake global diplomacy. Horne catches why it matters for New Zealanders. Bull, one of Australia's smartest, rues having New Zealanders for neighbours.

Australia's prime ministers are the most important individuals projecting Canberra's international goals. Global diplomacy is what prime ministers do to advance their government's foreign policy. I have watched them for the past five decades; most usually professionally. Sometimes close enough to report back that usually they did not have uranium on their breath.

This article's genesis is that in my forthcoming book I need to be on top of assessing Australia's fourteen prime ministers' global diplomacy since 1945. So I am doing to them what 1 do to the New Zealanders--putting my intellectual concepts to work. I consider most closely Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd. I want to measure just how progressive they were when undertaking their global diplomacy. None of the Australians has as impressive a portfolio for progressive global diplomacy as Norman Kirk, our best.

Canada's post-1945 prime ministers will be similarly considered. Most did middle power diplomacy with more acumen than their Australian colleagues. Stephen Harper, who took on the prime ministership in 2006, ended that reputation. Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau were high calibre global diplomatists --their respective legacies are well ahead of Kirk's.

New Zealand prime ministers have their Australian counterparts right at the top of their list of global interlocutors. It is not an equal partnership--a New Zealand prime minister seldom inhabits his Canberra counterpart's inner circle of 'speed dial' foreign contacts. Since 1945 a close, strong understanding between trans-Tasman prime ministers has been a rare thing indeed.

Minimal contact

Even today there is minimal contact between the trans-Tasman prime ministers on a two-some home-and-away basis. Throughout the seven decades, they have met most often at multilateral occasions beyond Australasia. In Tony Abbott's first year as prime minister none of his eleven overseas trips involved visiting New Zealand: he encountered John Key in Canberra (October 2013), Bali (APEC), Brunei (EAS), Sri Lanka (Chogm), South Africa (Mandela's funeral service) and Sydney (February 2014).

Since 1945 Canberra and Wellington have more often gone separate ways at critical moments of international developments than marched together. …

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